There is a book on my shelves, its spine somewhat light-faded, bought many years ago at a time when its title excited me; packed up, unread, before a move; unpacked and re-shelved afterwards, the gold lettering still able to raise a frisson of promise and excitement – an undiscovered country awaiting the leisure to explore it. Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. I kid you not.
Middle-age presents temptations and sins unanticipated or imagined in youth and frequently, nowadays, I find myself bringing “boredom” - by which I suppose I mean accidie - to the Second Plank after Shipwreck. It is a crime to be bored, a sin against all three of the theological virtues – far more pernicious than the unsubtle misdemeanours of vigorous early manhood. The thought of Art and Scholasticism brings it on in topmast-high, unconquerable waves.
It is dispersed somewhat, for a while, in the hortus conclusus of the Divine Office (Deo gratias) but also by kindred spirits, among whom I number Philip Larkin. This sometimes surprises friends, who imagine I’d find the black thread of godless despair running through all of his work repellant and indigestible. Not a bit of it. He’s indispensible to me. My wife knows why.
“Happiness writes white” he is alleged to have answered, confronted with the accusation of wallowing in gratuitous, whinging miserablism. The accusation is of course, false. Only eupeptic souls who lack, in Alan Bennett’s phrase (Bennett being himself the perfect reader of Larkin) that “fully developed capacity never quite to enjoy oneself” of which all three of us became conscious very early in life, could ever be so obtuse and fundamentally humourless as to bring it. I relish the music of his lugubrious misanthropy (“mug-faced wives, glaring at jellies”), the exquisitely placed provincial middle-class locutions (those who produce the word “ironic” here are the same people who call Gregorian Chant “relaxing”), the cold-eyed refusal to admit that there’s much else for it in an empty universe but to “flay thy neighbour, as thyself”. Larkin’s godlessness is precisely that, having very little to do with “atheism”; today’s shrill proponents of which would, it’s absolutely certain, have bored him rigid. In this he’s a far better representative of his age than a Richard Dawkins or a Christpher Hitchens. Who, after all, but a preposterous bore would waste his time propagandising for the banal and self-evident?
And yet, as with Wilfred Owen, “the poetry is in the pity”. Pity is everywhere, and it's perfectly genuine:
The Old Fools
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petaled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give
An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous, inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.
Dementia, of all the manifestations of human suffering, presents perhaps the greatest challenge to Christians. I mean this in a double sense: most obviously that my (mostly) non-practicing wife, having spent her nights lavishing inexhaustable patience and compassion on people whose illnesses frighten and repel the majority of us, will have a great deal more to show on the Last Day than me, with my finely-honed theological principles; but more: where is the immortal soul, with its irreducible personhood in all of it? What answer can one make to epiphenomenalism when it’s so obvious that integral personality disappears in precise proportion to the disintegration of the tissues of the brain, turning (in the words of a friend) a beloved and vivacious grandparent into an unrecognisable old sinner?
Art, like real theology, exists for the truth. My faith tells me that the soul of a demented man remains intact and inviolable, its operations no longer mediated, but impeded and suppressed for a while within the purgatory of a failing organism; but Larkin’s poetry is true, too. It’s a true representation, unmarred by any puerile polemic, of a godless universe. I need, periodically, good, strong doses of it.